Sunday, 19 September 2010

Do All Stay-at-home Parents Have to be Stupid?

Years ago, I ran across an article in the now-defunct Home Education Magazine. The short version, in case you don't feel like finding a back issue and reading the whole thing: 
Amy Hollingsworth ruminates on what is 'missing' from a stay-at-home-mom's life, mainly work that will not be undone tomorrow... laundry that's just going to get dirty, meals that are eaten, children who will need a bath again, and her perspective of how to find a tangibly rewarding aspect to motherhood and housewifehood.
This is a perspective that has long bothered me. She says, at one point:
"Not like the tangible sense of accomplishment you might get after finishing a report or closing a deal or saying something really smart in a board meeting."

Uh... saying something really smart in a board meeting is tangible?

I worked for years before having children, and I have to say that closing a deal might be momentarily satisfying, but in a moment there are other open deals that need to be closed, and others still that are unopened... that never ends, anywhere. are few jobs where people finish the work and never have to repeat it, or something quite a lot like it, tomorrow. The report might be all crisp and bound, but it's not the last report. It will be revised, there will be editorial changes, it will need to be added to or there will be a different one to do. 

No one, in any job, walks home at the end of Friday and says 'there, that's done once and for all' with nothing to do on Monday. Even one big win doesn't stop the workflow, getting a huge project completely finished is satisfying, but it only completely clears the desk of someone whose job ends simultaneously.

The tangible rewards of motherhood and housewifehood are akin to the kind in the work world: I can enjoy the fresh air scent of the line-dried sheets when I replace them on my bed, and when I stick my nose into the linen closet, and I know I've accomplished something that is as lasting as the employee review, or serving the last table of the night.

If I don't believe the clean linens have value, or I don't value my effort (however much was done by technology), the accomplishment will not feel like one. But the same can be said of an employee review that is ticked boxes and requires the use of phrases written by others, or not being the one who made the food being served.
I believe that the key to healthy sanity is in personally valuing what we do. If I feel that tidying up the Lego  is drudgery or not worth my time, or what servants should be doing for me, or it should stay tidied up because I tidied it up ever... I'm going to have no difficulty slipping into the misery of unfairness, of being asked too much, of not being wealthy enough to own slaves or not being appreciated enough by others who should see Lego tidying as more valuable than I do.

This is the core of the problem with grades and praise and employee reviews and rewards and awards: they take the onus for appreciation off the person doing the work and put it 'out there' --where the tangibility of the smart thing said in the board room first has to be acknowledged as such by others.

When an accomplishment has at all to do with being seen by others, then I can feel exactly the same kind of tangible sense of accomplishment by saying something brilliant to a child, or even to myself in the kitchen... because it's either smart or it isn't, who hears it cannot be related.
I suspect that what many mothers feel the lack of is the pats on the back. 

When one is required to seek to find ones own sense of accomplishment, it challenges something we've come to believe is necessary for the functioning of the galaxy: an external witness. 

Yet, a huge part of self-esteem is being able to see, and value, ourselves accurately without relying on external praise or rewards to prop us up.

After my first was born, I went through an interesting change of heart. While I used to believe that what I did at work was valuable and a good use of my time, and worth what I got paid for it, I came to discover that it wasn't. In fact, it went from feeling important to feeling irrelevant. Anyone could move that paper around, answer that phone effectively, transfer those calls, write those reports, organize that workflow --only I could mother my daughter. I felt for the first time that what I was doing actually mattered, both in terms of what it was I was doing, and that it was me doing it.

From that initial discovery, my self-esteem came to be linked very closely with what I thought was valuable, not what other people might see, or think, or believe. So, my house is messy --and my children are loved and healthy and nurtured. The laundry really piles up, and I nurture my family with food made with care and love, skill and knowledge. The dandelions on the lawn are thriving, and I have nothing better to do with my energy than sit up until 3:35 a.m. talking with my 21 year old daughter about her day, her friends, her thoughts and her discoveries.

One of my tangible accomplishments has always been that the week ended with people who experienced many great moments, laid down some excellent memories, have fun stories to tell and deep connections between them. How can a job, a paycheque or a employee award, or the applause of the board compete with that?


  1. Linda - I think this is just a great response! I left a career path where I was on track for the absolute top of my field (and I'm not exaggerating); but, you know what? I realized that however smart I was, however excellent I was at my job, however well respected I was, I was still replaceable. There is no such thing as a person who cannot be replaced in any job. Except one, and that is (as you said) being a mother to your children. I agree that we need to find our satisfaction and accomplishments internally, and not rely on the fleeting external rewards we might experience in our everyday job. Oh, and sorry, but I think anyone who says every day in any job is great is lying. There are boring days, tiring days, up days and down days. Just like when you are at home.

  2. I really loved this post, and while I liked the original article there was something that didn't sit right with me. I think you've nailed it right on the head.

  3. You are a woman who makes a mother very proud! Thank you. Mum. xoxox

  4. I did not read the article, but just thought I'd throw this out there based on the idea that something is missing from a stay at home mom's life... I was not a stay at home mother, I was a working full time barely got to see my daughter mother due to the fact that surprisingly, I fed the kid once, she expected it every day after that! I had to have a job. I made quite a few witty and very smart board room quips over the years. Closed a lot of deals and made a lot of lovely money for a company or two...none for me. What was missing in my life was watching my daughter learn to climb the jungle gym. Potty training. Most of her first words. Stuff like that..... I'd give up the board room smarts any day to have some of that.

  5. If we don't value our work as mothers, how can we expect society to do so? Thanks for this wisdom, Linda.

  6. this and am living it too. I remember reading about the big General Motors strike in the '80s. It went on for quite a while, with the employees and unions holding strong to their demands. They ended up pretty much getting what they wanted. You think they would be happy right? Their final request speaks so clearly to what they (and all of us) really wanted - for the CEO to stand before everyone and say that "the employees of GM matter and make a differnce." I think my little CEO's believe that, even if they don't say it yet.

  7. I have long been irritated at the concept that at-home parents'/carers' lives are mindless, boring, unambitious, undignified, messy, etc. I've heard the term "drudgery" too many times to count (and I ranted about it earlier this year).

    Now I'm not going to tell anyone else how to feel about dishes or vacuuming or cuddling babies but it really does irritate me our culture puts up this work as "less than" other kinds of work. Also, it is work that has to be done, not according to a certain standard but hey, people make messes. People need to eat. Babies need cuddling and care. If you don't want to/don't know how to do these things then all the more important you don't diss those who do.

    You didn't touch on the fact that at-home parents/carers are usually mothers and I think our culture routinely destatuses (not a real work) traditionally female work (even other women do this).

    We must also be careful to speak in the first person because sometimes these conversations start sounding like "paid work is crap, being a mother is what it's ALL about", which while might be true for an individual can come off being rather insensitive, esp. to women who want to work outside the home (and are still made to feel guilty if they do so), & women who can't have/don't want kids. It's too bad we have to be careful what we say but I think it's worth the effort. We

    Linda, great piece, easy one of my favorites on SAHMing!

    - Kelly, onetime chemical engineer and pulp mill foreman, now at-home parent thrilled to be working in the home raising kiddos